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18/05/2017

Southern Devolution: how can we get it back on track?

Written by Hannah Anderson

Senior Account Executive

The prospect of a Solent Combined Authority Devolution was pegged as ‘dead in the water’ earlier this year, following a last minute turn around of position from Isle of Wight Council, after the Island Independents’ leader stood down and was replaced by an Conservative leader. This was by no means the only iteration of Solent Devolution, but it was perceived as one of the most credible, and therefore has, understandably, left ill feeling amongst the local authorities involved.

We're keeping abreast of all Southern Devolution developments click here to see the latest updates.

The Southern Policy Centre recently held a conference to discuss how devolution could be put ‘back on track', where key figures in the devolution game came together to discuss how Solent Devolution could be moved forward. There were a number of insightful opinions and discussions that came out of this conference, the key points in looking at bringing devolution forward in any area are:

  • What does the area have to offer and what makes it unique and attractive to businesses?
  • What will devolution achieve – will it help create joined up thinking in relation to healthcare, infrastructure, spatial planning and economic prosperity, or is it just for more responsibility from central government?
  • Can political agendas be set aside in order to bring forward a Combined Authority and Mayor that will be more beneficial than the current method of governance?
  • Can devolution be framed in the context of Brexit – the Solent area is in a strategic position for foreign trade, can this be used as a means to create devolution in the south?
  • What area will devolution cover? Will this be based on economics or electoral boundaries?

 

The discussions were kicked off by guest speaker, Lord Jim O’Neill, who stated that the South is very diverse in its rural and urban composition, however, to get the most out of devolution, you have to focus on the urban areas to drive economic growth through the development of skills and experience in the area – which is inevitably a key element of devolution. This is stagnated somewhat by political motives, as many Councillors will be reluctant to give up their positions in order to make way for something better (or possibly worse). He noted that by bringing universities and businesses into the fold for devolution, it could help to drive it forward, in a similar vein to the North, as it will help to show what truly makes the South unique. Many universities in the area like Southampton and Bournemouth are at the forefront of their respective fields, and therefore provide an offering for businesses should the graduates stay within the area, which is also influenced by the infrastructural provisions and economic opportunities.

Gordon Page CBE highlighted that devolution has been a rigid model of Mayor and Combined Authority, which did not suit a rural and urban mixed economy, but there was no political push to find any alternatives. In Dorset, and similarly in the Solent area, the political will to bring forward devolution is far too fragmented to advance a credible and successful bid, and without a restructuring of the local government process before devolution can begin, the overlaps of infrastructural and economic strategy cannot be remedied. Dorset’s bid for devolution was not supported by all those in the affected areas. However, it remains to be seen if the Dorset devolution bid will be successful after the general election, this could in turn act as a symbol for other councils that wish to bring forward devolution but are unable to completely agree on what it means, or who and what it includes funding for.  

Insight and Predictions

To some extent, Conservatives nationally and locally have been reluctant to support the idea of devolution in general, with the primary concern being that power would be given back to Labour through the election of Mayors. Indeed, even in the North, it was anticipated that there would be no Conservative gains, rather than the two Mayoral seats that they achieved. This to some extent could buoy the support for devolution deals, as rather than hindering the level of power and influence that the Conservatives have, it could extend it. Certainly, Secretary of State Sajid Javid, has indicated as much in a recent visit to Southampton. Nationally then, this could make a huge difference to the perception of elected devolved Mayors, and in turn create a large measure of stability and strong, accountable governance. 

Solent Devolution version 2.0 is likely to be a little way off, particularly given the focus that will be given to the general election over the next six weeks. Tensions between Solent councils on the topic remain high, but that doesn’t mean devolution won’t happen. Universities and the Solent LEP can provide an apolitical driving force to evolve the argument for the unique value of the area and agree what area would be covered by a devolution in the South. This would remove the party politics element of devolution discussions, which has thus far hindered successful progress. The will is certainly there, but how the election and political agendas will impact a bid for devolution in the south will remain to be seen over the next few months.

Our team will continue to keep up to date with the development of Southern Devolution and will be monitoring closely over the coming months.

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